Event Summary: A Conversation with the D.C. DIVAS

by Dr. Marissa Kiss, Institute for Immigration Research, George Mason University

Event Summary: A Conversation with the D.C. DIVAS

On January 31, 2024 the Institute for Immigration Research (IIR) hosted a conversation with current and former players on the D.C. DIVAS. The D.C. DIVAS are one of 14 professional teams in the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA). Over the last two decades, the DIVAS have won three National Championships and compiled more victories than any other franchise in the history of the sport. But the DIVAS are about more than sports. Their mission “… is to level the playing field for girls and women in sports” and to inspire and empower the next generation of athletes.

This message was well celebrated and underscored by the four DIVAS panelists who joined the conversation: Felicia Donelson, Kristie Kelly, Sarah Struber, and Lara Ladeji.

Felicia Donelson, who was born in Washington, D.C., is a trained lawyer, community activist, and now football player. Felicia joined the DIVAS three years ago after coming across an advertisement for tryouts on Instagram. Felicia noted how she was not an athlete and had not played sports in her youth or adolescence. But after volunteering and building houses in the Bahamas for two and half months, she figured she could take on the challenge and become a professional women’s tackle football player. When Felicia is not in the trenches with the offensive line, she is making her rounds in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area raising awareness about women in sports and the need for equality for women in football.

Kristie Kelly, who was born in Oyster Bay, NY, has been an avid sports fan and athlete her whole life. In 2018, while at Dartmouth College, she won the USA Ultimate D-I College National Championships with her team Dartmouth Daybreak (formerly known as Princess Layout). The following year, Kristie was selected to play for the New York Gridlock Ultimate (NYGL). In 2022, Kristie searched the internet for open tryouts for women’s professional sports and found the open tryouts for the DIVAS. Kristie, who plays as a defensive back and kicker for the DIVAS, is also an electrical engineer who currently works in the Spacecraft Power Engineering Group at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. She is working on NASA’s Dragonfly mission which is a rotorcraft-lander that will explore dozens of location sites around Saturn’s moon, Titan.

Sarah Struber was born in Hallein, Austria and played with the Salzburg Ducks, the American Football Team in Austria. Sarah spent five seasons with the Ducks where she played linebacker, defensive end, safety, and running back. During that time, Sarah continued to showcase her football skills as she represented Austria on the Austrian National American Football Team in the 2019 Women European Championship in Leeds. Using her health and fitness background, Sarah only broadened her skill set by becoming a certified EMS (electro muscle stimulation) Instructor at a vocational school in Salzburg and in 2023, combining all her training, she became a sports coach for kids. It was this love for working with children and a desire for new challenges and growth that led Sarah to the United States. In April of last year, Sarah came to the United States to work as an Au Pair. And in perfect synergy, she was also reunited with football joining the DIVAS as a running back.

Similar to Kristie and Sarah, sports and athletics have always been a part of Lara Ladeji’s life. In 1985 at the age of 12 years old, Lara came to the United States from Nigeria. Lara was an avid runner, participating in track and field, triathlons, and marathons throughout her adolescence and adulthood. After watching her sister play on the DIVAS, Lara decided to try-out for the team. Lara joined the DIVAS in 2007 and played as a defensive end for five seasons. During that time, Lara started her own nursing agency, Xtra Miles Nursing LLC, became a U.S. Citizen, and started a non-profit organization in honor of her late sister.

While the panelists' backgrounds, careers, and paths to becoming a DIVAS player were completely different, they shared a similar message about working together for a common goal. As Lara emphasized, “we are all puzzle pieces made of diverse pieces that are different shapes, sizes, colors, religions… and backgrounds.” Moderator and IIR Director, Dr. Jim Witte, further noted that the diversity of players that we see on the field can lead to a diversity of the fans. As a result, sports provide an opportunity for people to not only support one another but, “interact with others who are diverse, who in other areas would not be coming together.” As Dr. Witte stressed, it is important to promote the work that the DIVAS and other sports teams are doing off the field in their local community, particularly the contributions of the players, including new Americans- as well as other foreign-born individuals in the United States.

Accomplishments Off the Field

Felicia Donelson, who also serves as the Director of Community Outreach for the DIVAS, highlighted the accomplishments of the organization off the field. Donelson noted that the DIVAS “have a mission of service to our community.” Over the last two decades, the DIVAS have partnered with organizations, schools, and other non-profits such as the Capital Area Food Bank. However, for Donelson, her favorite part is empowering young girls and women to reach for their goals, show girls “that yes you can play,” and raise awareness about women in tackle football.

Donelson recognizes that the achievements of women in tackle football won’t necessarily benefit her, but for the kids who are the fans, “they are the future. They are the ones who are going to carry this torch forward and they are the ones who are going to…continue to break the glass ceiling.” Donelson noted that over the past two decades, the DIVAS have made cracks in the ceiling and it is “open, but the young fans are going to storm right through.” Kristie Kelley also added that “we [DIVAS] are trailblazers for this sport so that the younger generation can grow up do this [play women’s tackle football] as a living. If a young girl or young boy sees an athlete that looks like them… then they say 'Oh well if they can do it, I can do it…' It's that mentality of 'If you can see it, then you can be it.' And when we go out and do these events at different schools or do an event like this one, we are showing people that you can be a tackle football player and an engineer… nurse, an au pair, lawyer, teacher, [and/or] a mother.”

For the panelists, playing for the DIVAS not only provided a community and was a motiving and fulfilling experience, but it also created a space for them to set goals, challenge themselves, be active and courageous, and helped broaden what they want to do. 

For Lara, one of the biggest takeaways from playing on the DIVAS included the “freedom to dream, freedom to go after your goal, freedom to fail and try again.” For Sarah, playing football has taught her to stay active, that everything is possible, and helped her improve her English language skills. Kristie acknowledged the power in sports in that you can play sports at any age and you don’t have to stop. “It [sports] can be any capacity whether you go into coaching later on in life or whether you’re encouraging your children to be involved in sports… or on the sideline as a parent cheering on your kids. I think sports is going to be in my life in some capacity… as well as continuing to be an engineer.”

Lastly, playing for the DIVAS helped Felicia enhance and broaden what she wants to do after she retires from the game. As Felicia noted, “prior to football, I was diving into the political sphere and recognizing that there’s such an inequity in women’s sports and there is an inequity in terms of women’s tackle football.” For Felicia that meant learning and understanding more about the issue and to expand her base in terms of supporters of the game. Some of the biggest DIVAS supporters and fans include the player’s family and friends, kids, teachers, co-workers, and the community. As Kristie lamented, the DIVAS fans are their biggest advocates and without them the league and the DIVAS team would not be possible.

Where to Watch and Keep Up With the D.C. DIVAS?

Even though the team name is the D.C. DIVAS, the games are not just held in Washington, D.C. Over the years the team has played at Eastern Senior High School in Washington, D.C., Prince George's Sports & Learning Complex in Landover, Maryland, Largo High School in Largo, Maryland, and most recently at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia.

The first home game of the 2024 season is on Saturday, May 11, 2024 against the Tampa Bay Inferno.

You can keep up with the DIVAS either by attending a game, visiting the D.C. DIVAS website, or through their social media Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn.

To watch a recording of the event at the Institute for Immigration Research, click here.